Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Revanchism of the Third Rome (Part 2): The Role of Russian Orthodoxy

As noted in my last post, blogger Olga Doroshenko very nicely sketched out a description of national narcissism as applied to Russia.  She did an excellent job outlining the grandiose self created by the masters of Russian culture - namely, the tsar, the nobility, and the intellectuals - over the last several centuries.  A key pillar of that grandiose self is its assertion that it has a special, Messianic mission to the world, a mission that must be carried out by imperial conquest. Now, to claim that one has a special, Messianic mission, one requires some rather extraordinary proof.  What better proof than that the bearer of this mission should have received this mission from people who claim to speak on behalf of God?

So my attention was arrested by Olga's mention of Russian claims to be "the Third Rome" - a term which I had never heard of before.  As she says,
"There is an opinion that the Russians were spoilt and degraded by the Bolsheviks. Wrong. They were like that long before Lenin. Long before Peter the Great (who was a flamboyant narcissist himself). They adopted the myth of “the Third Rome” ("Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth. No one shall replace your Christian Tsardom!") in the early 16th century, but they believed themselves to be the only “true Christian” nation long before that. This narcissistic claim has its roots deep in the times of the Tartar invasion, and I will not trace them. Let’s concentrate not on the reasons, but on the consequences."
As I say, my attention was arrested by this phrase, "the Third Rome," so I did a little bit of Googling, and discovered that " the first half of the sixteenth century, an obscure Russian monk from Pskov wrote a number of letters in which he spoke about Moscow as the Third Rome.  The name of the monk was Filofei...and his letters were sent to...Moscow grand prince Vassiliij III...and to Ivan IV the Terrible..." ("The Concept of the Third Rome and Its Political Implications", Alar Laats, 2015).  To understand how the concept of the Third Rome contributed both to the Russian grandiose self and to Russian imperialism, it is necessary to see how Church and State evolved in the West from the "conversion" of the emperor Constantine to the present.  And to see this evolution, we must begin with the birth and evolution of Rome as a historical fact and metaphysical reality.

For Rome managed to establish itself as both the center of an empire and as a paragon of "civilization" - indeed, as the center of the "civilized" world.  Therefore, Rome laid claim to universality - to the notion that Rome alone was the bearer of civilization, and that this legitimized Roman conquests and violent imperial expansion.  Those people who lived outside the orbit and influence of Rome were characterized as "barbarians" - as uncivilized savages living in chaos.  With the "conversion" of Constantine to Christianity, Rome added a new claim to its existing claims of imperial legitimacy: namely, that Rome was now the defender of the one true faith, and thus even more legitimized in its use of imperial violence to defend and expand its territories.  This claim was an integral part of the political and religious strategy and philosophy of state and ecclesiastical power called Constantinianism, which granted powers of state enforcement to those members of the Church who were recognized by the Emperor as the "official" spokesmen of Christianity, and which gave these spokesmen the ability to use violent state power to persecute those people who claimed to be Christian while disagreeing with these official spokesmen.

One of the things that Constantine did was to establish a second imperial capital, named, of course, after himself: the city of Constantinople (formerly known as Byzantium) in the eastern half of the Roman empire, as part of a scheme to facilitate administration of an empire which had grown too large to be effectively managed from one city.  However, the leaders of the Roman church sought to concentrate religious (ecclesiastical) power in the city of Rome, and this caused a fracture in the "official" State church which paralleled the fracture of the Roman empire into two parts, one ruled by Rome, and the other ruled by Constantinople.  After the fall of the western Roman empire, the eastern, Byzantine empire declared itself to be the only true, legitimate seat of civilization, the one true heir to the titles originally claimed by the united Roman empire and the only true bearer of the Christian faith.  According to Laats, this made the Byzantine empire also universalist in its claims and outlook, as stated below:
"Thus the eastern Roman Empire, known also as Byzantium considered itself to be an empire and as the only legitimate heir of its history and tradition. The theologians of Byzantium understood their history as the continuation of the history of the ancient Roman Empire. Indeed, they pretended to even more – the empire existed according to the plan of God. The aim of the Roman, respective Byzantine Empire was to grasp the whole world for the proclamation of Christ. But together with this the aim was to spread the [Byzantine] peace and culture. Thus their intentions were also universalist. The people of Byzantium tried to be in every respect like the Romans. Even the name they used in Greek for themselves was Rhomaioi – the Romans.

"One important factor that influenced the development of their consciousness as Romans was their opposition to the West. This opposition was both political and ecclesial. The rulers of the Western Europe and of the Byzantine Empire pretended to be the Roman emperors. And both churches pretended to be the leaders of the universal church."
The Byzantine empire laid claim to the title of a "second Rome," a claim which originated from Constantine himself.  Due to a number of factors (including foresight and political and administrative shrewdness on the part of its rulers), the Byzantine empire lasted a very long time, and the Byzantine church brought many Eastern peoples and nations under its influence, from Greece through North Africa to Central Europe - and Russia.  The Byzantine empire viewed itself as a utopia, a visible, earthly expression of the invisible Kingdom of God.  However, the Byzantine empire also fell, and Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman empire in 1453, and the only part of the Byzantine church (also known as "Orthodox") which was not under Ottoman control was the Russian orthodox communion.

Now what is essential to note is that from the 12th century to the late 15th century, there were several political power centers in Russia, and Moscow's pre-eminence as the chief power center was by no means assured.  (Indeed, even later in Russian history, the center of political power was moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg, and was not moved back permanently until 1917.)  Thus it was that after the fall of Constantinople, there were a number of Russian power centers (such as Tver and Novgorod) vying for the mantle of "the third Rome" to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the second Rome.  The ecclesiastical supporters of each of these power centers sought to bolster these claims by lending the weight of the support of the Russian Orthodox church to each power center's claim.

The victory of Ivan the Terrible over all other rivals (and over Tatar invaders) cemented Moscow's place as the center of an empire, and in the eyes of many Russian orthodox clerics, this cemented the place of Moscow (and eventually of Russia) as the heir to the mantle of the Third Rome.  However, to see how this conception of Russian identity influenced and guided Russian domestic and foreign policy from Ivan onward, you'll have to wait until next week (unless you want to do some research yourself).  Unfortunately, I am out of time today.

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